Responding to liberal scholarship on Behemoth
Published: 4 August 2020 (GMT+10)
As it will be well known to the majority of regular readers at creation.com, the traditional biblical creationist viewpoint regarding the Behemoth of Job 40 is that it likely represents a very early reference to a living dinosaur, post-Flood. And while the positive case has been made convincingly, essentially none of the creationist literature up to this point has addressed the more recent liberal scholarship on this question.
Unfortunately, if you consult the internet about pretty much anything in the Bible, and especially if you frequent skeptics’ forums, you’re likely to get bombarded with liberal critical views. While the article linked above does a great job making a case for a sauropod identification, it does not address a newer idea coming from liberal scholarship: that Behemoth was a mythical super-bull! I have been directed multiple times by various skeptics online to a particular YouTube video by Ben Stanhope, who has a bachelor’s degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an M.A. in Manuscript Cultures from Hamburg University.1 In this video, Stanhope cites several scholarly sources in his attempt to make the case that the Behemoth refers to the mythical masculine “super-bull” that hearkens to Babylonian mythology and ancient Jewish apocryphal writings. This same conclusion is also reached by old earther and online Christian apologist Robert Rowe.2
The claim is that the Hebrew terms for “tail” and “thighs” used in the text of Job 40:17 are both used metaphorically and euphemistically to refer to the male anatomy—the penis and testes of the bull.
Behemoth word etymology
Stanhope cites B. F. Batto, whose entry on Behemoth is as follows:
“[Behemoth] is the intensive (feminine) plural of behema (‘beast, ox’; collective: ‘beasts, cattle’ … ); nevertheless, in Job 40:15-24 the grammatical forms pertaining to Behemoth are all masculine singular. The figure suggested is a singular being of awesome dimensions, a ‘super ox’ of mythic proportions and possessing supernatural characteristics, hence the ‘Beast’ par excellence.”3
The first thing to note is that this interpretation abandons any pretense of respect for biblical inerrancy. The context clearly indicates that God is describing something real that He created, just as he described many other real-world animals in the prior chapters just before this. However, this is a very weak argument on its own merits. As any student of linguistics can tell you, the etymology of a word, even if it can be firmly established, does not necessarily tell us the meaning of the word. For example, the English word “deer” is derived from the German word “tier”, which means simply “animal”. But the English word deer does not mean “animal”; it’s a specific type of animal. Words change over time! Therefore, simply showing that the Hebrew word Behemoth may be related to another word for cattle does not prove that the word Behemoth itself denotes cattle of any kind. Indeed, as commentators including Batto have already noted, the description given doesn’t match that of any real cattle. On top of that, God had just mentioned cattle (an ox) in 39:9, making this redundant if it refers to cattle.
No long neck mentioned (but no horns, either)
Stanhope further attacks the sauropod theory on the grounds that brachiosaurs have extremely long necks, and the passage doesn’t mention any long neck. This is a reasonable point, since God is describing all the most noteworthy and impressive aspects of Behemoth in this context. However, this is not a foolproof argument since 1) it depends on an assumption about what God would have decided is most noteworthy about Behemoth and 2) not all sauropods had long necks to begin with. Stanhope creates a strawman by assuming the identification of ‘brachiosaur’, while actual creationist writers such as Steel have said simply, “some type of extinct dinosaur.”
Brachytrachelopan (Figure 1), for example, was a sauropod dinosaur with powerful thighs and a large, long tail, but he was missing the long neck seen in other sauropods. I’m not saying this passage necessarily must be referring to Brachytrachelopan; I am merely raising this example to show that God could have been referring to some large sauropod dinosaur even if He did not mention a long neck. Keep in mind also that all of our reconstructions of extinct animals are based on a certain level of assumption-making and represent historical science, not operational science.
This sword also cuts both ways. What is the most noteworthy feature of bulls? Yes, that’s right, the horns. If this is supposed to be a mythical super bull or super ox, why are no horns mentioned? That seems very odd to put it mildly.
The tail and thighs
Here is the linchpin of their argument. Several in the academic community have suggested that these words “tail” and “thighs” are being used euphemistically and metaphorically to refer to male organs.
Writers such as David Bernat (one of Stanhope’s sources cited in his video), appeal to much later extra-biblical literature to justify their metaphorical reading. They also add heaping portions of their own speculations.
“In fact, the description, if not marked in v. 15 as referring to Behemoth, could be applied to a human body. [The Hebrew descriptive terms for body parts used here] are all words used in Biblical Hebrew to denote human physiognomy … Though mention of a [zanab] (‘tail’) in the description of a man, might give a reader pause, the body part could easily be construed as an erect penis, proud as the beams that buttressed Solomon’s Temple.”4 [emphasis added]
This seems like an extremely odd rabbit trail that Bernat has gone down. Why attempt to compare the descriptions of Behemoth to a man in the first place? This is clearly intended to describe a beast, not a man, so why force the body terms to be representative of human anatomy? Notice Bernat’s speculative language: “could easily be construed… ” Sure, lots of things are easy, but that doesn’t make them right. Why not simply take it as written? Bernat never seems to get around to answering that basic question.
Further justification for understanding this ‘tail’ reference as a euphemism is given by appealing to the second part of the parallel couplet, the description of ‘thighs’. Bernat points out that this Hebrew term, ‘pachad’, has sometimes been translated ‘testicles’, including in the Latin Vulgate. Few modern Bible translators choose to render it thus, but Bernat doesn’t address that, or give us any particular reason why this could not simply mean ‘thigh’ as it literally states. Instead, he continues with the speculative language:
“ … the verse structured around Behemoth’s [zanab] and [pachad] could plausibly be interpreted as trumpeting its subject’s virility, rather than merely describing the animal’s tail and thigh.”
Is this plausible? Perhaps, but why should anybody care what is merely plausible? Bernat never bothers to explain anything about the context of this passage that would lead a reader to prefer his metaphorical reading over a straightforward literal one. To my eyes, it seems very much out of place and out of keeping with the rest of the context of the surrounding chapters. Bernat refers to medieval scholars such as Rashi to buttress his view, but let’s remember we’re talking about the putative oldest book of the Bible here. This could possibly be the oldest surviving work of literature in the world, period. Appealing to what somebody wrote in the middle ages, or even to extrabiblical Jewish literature from the first few centuries AD, misses the mark by several centuries at the very least. As Ron Neller wrote in the Journal of Creation several years ago, “most experts propose a date for the Book of Job no later than the 4th century BC, and most likely much earlier, possibly pre-Mosaic.”5
It should go without saying that we should tread lightly when claiming to understand supposed figures of speech, especially those not clearly indicated in the text, based on outside literature that postdates the text by centuries or more. Languages and cultures can change quite a bit in that amount of time!
Another of Stanhope’s references, Scott Jones, is equally vague and speculative on this subject. He writes in a footnote, “The word [zanab] (lit., “tail”) seems to be a euphemism for a penis, and it is used as such in Postbiblical Hebrew as well … ”6 Perhaps I am just missing something obvious, but in what way does this reference to the creature’s tail seem to be a euphemism? I can think of nothing in the text that would suggest that, or that would disallow a simple literal reading of this verse, other than the ‘difficulty’ that no living animals have tails that could in any reasonable way be compared to cedar trees!
In this way, the unspoken reasoning of these scholars may be uncovered. All these scholars likely accept an evolutionary worldview, as do the majority in the secular academic world, and would thus be unwilling to consider that this most ancient piece of literature might include a description of a living dinosaur. Could this evolutionary bias be driving their unwillingness to read this in a straightforward manner, subconsciously or otherwise? I think so.
As one reads their rather Walton-like appeals to later extrabiblical sources, it can scarcely be missed that the tendency among academics to want to read the Bible through the lens of pagan literature is very much in-vogue.
When looking at all the evidence, the case these scholars are putting forward is clearly weak. While this euphemistic reading is apparently possible, and these terms have allegedly been used in that way in other places and at other times, none of these writers have taken the all-important step of justifying why one should adopt that reading here, in Job 40. The text reads just fine if you take it to mean simply ‘tail’ and ‘thighs’, and in fact this fits much better with the tone of the rest of the book. Respected Hebrew scholars such as Kaddari seem to take this as a literal description, and even reject the identification of it as a hippopotamus on account of the small size of the hippo’s tail.7 The suggestion that this is a reference to a pagan mythological ‘super-bull’ certainly doesn’t do justice to the text, but the suggestion does have all the hallmarks of liberal eisegesis.
Indeed, much as we do when defending the literal reading of ‘yom’ in Genesis 1, we could simply respond by asking the question: “If God had intended to refer to the literal tail and thighs of Behemoth in Job 40:17, how could He have been any clearer?” Ironically, Bernat himself writes,
“… the Leviathan and Behemoth poems evoke a strong emotional reaction. Rather than passion and delight, the desired effect is shock and awe. Leviathan, according to [Job] 41.17, even strikes fear among gods who bear witness to him. Within the narrative context, the descriptions are meant to amaze and frighten Job with the overwhelming might of the creatures, thereby reducing him to silence.”4
But wouldn’t God’s description of a huge tail, compared to the largest trees the locals in the near east would have known (the cedars of Lebanon), and powerful muscular thighs, serve the purpose of reducing Job to awestruck silence much better than an arguably lewd reference to male anatomy?
References and notes
- Stanhope, B. (“Ben S”), Why Behemoth isn’t a Dinosaur, youtube.com/watch?v=AxGARM5cYKY, accessed 23 April 2020. Return to text.
- Rowe, R., Behemoth In Job: A Bull, Not A Dinosaur, sentinelapologetics.org, 17 November 2017. Return to text.
- Batto, B.F., “Behemoth”, in: van der Toorn, K., Becking, B., and van der Horst, P.W., eds., Dictionary of Deities and Demons, p. 165, Brill, Leiden, 1999; as quoted in Ref. 1. Return to text.
- Bernat, D., Biblical Wasfs beyond Song of Songs, JSOT 28:327-49, 2004. doi.org/10.1177%2F030908920402800305 Return to text.
- Neller, R., Do you know the laws of the heavens?—the Bible and the hydrologic cycle, Journal of Creation 28(3):61–66, December 2014. Return to text.
- Jones, S., Corporeal Discourse in the Book of Job, Journal of Biblical Literature 132(4): 845-863, 2013. Return to text.
- Kaddari, M., A Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew [in Hebrew], entry בהמות, page 89, cited at balashon.com, “Behemoth and behema”, accessed 19 May 2020. Author provided citation via personal email correspondence. Return to text.